By Nechemia Ben-Tor
The murder of Yair was the lowlight of a string of failures of the underground, which did not end with Yair’s death. There were still many painful blows to come, which brought them to the brink. Some of the members were broken and left the organization. Those who remained swore to carry on and take revenge.
They declared: “The Freedom Fighters of Israel will not put down their arms; they will continue to fight an all-out war against the foreign occupier.” At the head of the organization, Yitzhak Zelnik was installed, the most senior commander and Yair’s deputy, who was incapable of carrying out operations himself. In Tel Aviv, a group of 35 men, led by Tuvia Henzion, left the organization, due to a concern about agents provocateurs who had infiltrated it. In Jerusalem and Haifa, there were but a few dozen left, and they put pressure on Zelnik to take action and wreak vengeance.
In fact, the most experienced and qualified reserve of the underground was in the prisons and detention camps. There was also another reserve, the “Polish group,” which was hidden from the British—about twenty young men and women, members of the “nationalist cells” of the IZL in Poland, who arrived in Eretz Israel in 1941 and stood by Yair. There were three reprisal attacks planned, but without adequate intelligence, they were all doomed to failure.
An electric mine was placed near Sharona, along the road which Morton, who had killed Yair, would regularly travel every morning. However, luck was with Morton, whose car moved to the side to overtake; when the mine was detonated, his car was flipped over, but he himself emerged hale and hearty.
Michael Joseph McConnell, British chief of police in Jerusalem, was the next target. The plan was to trap McConnell’s car; he was accustomed to leave his house in Talbiyeh, picking up his driver on the way and continuing to police headquarters. The idea was to trap the car and to plant mines on the way to the English cemetery on Mt. Zion, detonating them at the time of McConnell’s funeral. The plan was approved, but not the minelaying along the road to the cemetery, as there was a concern that Jewish drivers would be injured by the detonations. McConnell’s vehicle was in fact caught, but on that morning, it was his Arab driver who took the car from the garage, and so he was driving it and was the one killed in the explosion.
On April 22nd, 1942, another attempt was made to assassinate Colonel Allan Saunders, Inspector-General of Police in Palestine. A large bomb was placed on the route Saunders took, near his home. However, it was discovered and dismantled. A short time later, Moshe Bar-Giora and Yisrael Tevua, who had planned the McConnell operation, were arrested.
The waves of arrests continued with no respite, some of them with the active assistance of the Jewish Agency and the Haganah, ratcheting up the rate of abductions. People would disappear from their homes, and only after some time would their family members be informed that they were “prisoners” of the Haganah. These abductees were interrogated by their abductors, using harsh instruments of torture, and afterwards they were handed over to the CID. One of the abductees, Ephraim Zatler, who was turned over to the police after his interrogation, told his comrades in the Mizra detention camp that the Haganah men, after they had abducted him, tortured him for three days. They hung him by his hands on a rope, then would take him down and interrogate him and hang him up again. After they had tortured him, he was thrown into a ditch by the side of the road, and it was there that the CID picked him up.
One of the boys abducted by the men of the Haganah who was turned over to the British was Yaakov Gilboa (Polani), one of Yair’s aides, who was broken and left the organization. He settled in the kibbutz known as Ma'ale HaHamisha, convinced that he had found his peace there. However, one day three men arrived in the kibbutz, and they told Gilboa to come with them. He was taken, handcuffed, to be interrogated for several days; in the end, he was turned over by Yehuda Arzi, a police officer belonging to the Haganah, to Giles. After the interrogation, he was transferred to Mizra, then to Latrun and finally to Africa.
The noose tightened. Photographs of Yehoshua Cohen, Zvi Frunin, and Nehemiah Turnberg, three of the remaining commanders, were distributed.
On May 5th, 1942, Yitzhak Zelnik, the last commander of Irgun Tzvai Leumi be-Israel, turned himself into the police, so broken and despairing was he. The reason for his surrender he gave was that his faith had been deeply shaken and the relationship between him and the men of the Jerusalem branch had been shattered due to his opposition to the plan to mine the cemetery for McConnell’s funeral, as described above.
The lion’s share of the organization was now in detention camps and prisons in Acre and Jerusalem. In retrospect, there was just a small faithful cadre of the shattered Stern Gang, walking through the valley of the shadow of death, swept by waves of hatred from every direction; a tiny group of empty-handed youths, expecting at every moment bullets, imprisonment, or torture. One may think of Yair’s of poem about the “gang of lunatics,” which begins with the phrase: “Stricken with the madness of kingship, the freedom fighters of the homeland.” Only someone with an ideological affliction, driven mad by an idea, could manage to maintain an underground band under these impossible conditions, without breaking down or despairing.
Yehoshua Cohen and Zvi Frunin, whose photographs had been publicized with a tidy price on their heads, were undoubtedly of the stripe of those “stricken with the madness of kingship.” Zvi Frunin, “The Oldster,” was in charge of the Haifa branch.
Yehoshua Cohen was fifteen years younger, a native of Eretz Israel, active in IZL in the town of his birth, Kfar Saba; after the schism, he joined Yair. He was shocked to his core by the murder of Yair. However, he quickly recovered and decided to continue the fight at any price; he would never be taken alive. After his picture was publicized, he decided to always be armed. Nacha, who had been his girlfriend since they were children, accompanied him as he sought temporary shelter in the orchards of Sharon. Slowly, they started to form connections with the few remnants who remained on the outside, and Yehoshua started to receive them in the orchard. Yehoshua knew how to instill hope in his comrades and convince them to go on fighting. There was no limit to their high regard for him.
Israel Eldad was one of those inspired by Yehoshua’s words. He dedicated himself to public relations, putting together pamphlets and reviving the internal periodical BaMahteret which had ceased publication after Yair’s murder. He called for the opening of a second front, a war of aggression against the foreign ruler, occupier of the homeland. This second front would not take long to materialize.